1986 was a bloody busy year for Swans
; two albums emerged from the same recording sessions, Greed
and Holy Money
, and extensive touring resulted in the live album Public Castration is a Good Idea
. While I consider Greed
to be easily their weakest ‘80s album, it’d be remiss of me to overlook this album entirely; this is, after all, the first album to feature keyboardist Jarboe, who’d prove to be an increasingly important presence in the band until they first broke up in 1997, and that paved the way for innovations to Swans’ sound that would continue long after her absence from Swans’ 2010s iteration. With that in mind, let’s see what that does for this album.
Opener “Fool” is the first promise of Swans expanding their instrumental palette; the song prominently features piano that’s recorded in such a way that it really emphasizes the percussive weight of the keys, and Michael Gira actually kind of sort of sings for once. The song’s so minimalist that the next song, “Anything For You”, feels all the more monolithic for it. It has all the force of previous Swans material, but it’s more restrained than their earlier albums too; it’s a primarily percussive song, with the toms being struck with as much force as possible, accented by dissonant guitar bursts at the end of each measure and Gira degrading himself by proclaiming a sort of sycophantic love born of abuse. “Nobody” is even tenser; Jarboe’s backing vocals are just discordant enough to put the listener off, but not unmelodic enough to be truly offputting. The choir-like vocals provide a sort of wall of sound that provides a background to Gira abasing and hating himself, and it only gets more imposing when the snare comes comes in; it sounds like a cracking whip, and it complements the ironic chants of “glory” quite nicely.
As if the album couldn’t get more unsettling, “Stupid Child” mostly consists kick strikes followed by beating piano wire. As is, it’s rather disquieting, though it could only be better if there was more to it. The percussion’s a solid backbone, but I really wish there was more to it than that wall of drums and wires. The title track fortunately has more of a buildup than what came before; ironically airy and melodic backing vocals courtesy of Jarboe and a cutting kick-snare rhythm provide a lot of anticipation before Gira comes in. It’s an indication of the direction Swans’ sound was to take, and while I think they perfected it so much that they leave this song, and arguably the album as a whole, in the dust, it’s the most interesting song in the track listing so far because there’s a bit more to the songwriting than what much of the track listing so far has had to offer.
To me at least, “Heaven” feels like the most complete song on the album. It’s certainly anything but heavenly. It’s about as basic as the rest of the record, but for once it feels like it’s actually going to build to a climax. The song sounds quite hollow; something about the recording quality makes the studio sound more spacious than it might’ve been in reality, giving the sound a sort of echoey quality. The snare especially adds to the mood being built, it sounds like a shotgun going off in the mouth of a cave, and it adds greatly to the song’s unease. As the song progresses there’s also a sort of mechanical whirring noise that gets louder with each verse. In spite of the abrupt ending, this is easily my favourite song of the bunch, because it actually seems to amount to something, and it actually has something of a progression that builds the song’s mood quite nicely, which is more than can be said for the rest of the album.
“Money is Flesh” is the most annoying song on the album; every second bar atonal guitar stabs attack the ears, and while I’m pretty sure it’s written the way it is to service the album’s grim, empty atmosphere like every other song, it just annoys the shit out of me because of how little else there is to look forward to. The lyrics aren’t much better, with Gira spending half of it shouting you deserve it. Over all, it’s just an irksome closer, probably even more so considering that it succeeds the best song on the record.
Of the early Swans days, Greed
is easily my least favourite of theirs, and also just my least favourite Swans album in general. There’s a lot of good ideas, and the basic chord progressions on their own are good, but more often than not so little is done with them that it leaves me desperately wishing I was listening to Children of God
or any of their 2010s albums instead. Its flaws have only gotten more glaring upon relistening because Holy Money
, which was recorded during the same year and at the same time as Greed, has all the same ideas and executes them far better than this album ever did. It’s not a complete waste; Jarboe’s contributions keep the songs from being completely boring, and she’s a welcome addition to Swans’ sound, and it at least has “Heaven”, but it’s albums like this that are most likely the reason a lot of Swans fans, myself included, strongly recommend starting with Children of God
Favourite track(s): “Heaven”
Least favourite: “Fool”, “Money is Flesh”